Laughing matters: Bringing queerness into comedy festivals
By: Danielle Scrimshaw
The most wonderful time of the year in Melbourne is upon us: International Comedy Festival time.
Each year my dad and I watch the televised MICF events – usually the Gala performance and opening night. Comedy is one of the things that Dad and I bond over the most, sharing a similar sense of humour and frequently quoting Monty Python sketches at each other.
With each year of the MICF, however, I increasingly notice the differences in our humour.
The festival has changed over the years in terms of what kind of comedians grace the stage. This change, which has become much more apparent within the last few years, is the number of queer comedians claiming their space in the industry.
Back in 2009 the festival showcased LGBTIQ+ comedians such as Josh Thomas, Hannah Gadsby, Tom Ballard and Stephen K. Amos. Ten years later these names – excluding Thomas – are joined by the likes of Rhys Nicholson, Joel Creasey, Zoё Combs Marr, DeAnne Smith, Urzila Carlson, Nath Valvo, Demi Lardner, and more.
These sneaky queers have somehow infiltrated the Straight White Male comedy scene, becoming more and more prominent each year.
In that same timeframe, I entered my late teens and began reconsidering how I labelled my sexuality. At some point I realised that when watching comedy with Dad, as soon as a queer comedian walked onstage, I would tense up and hope Dad would laugh at their jokes.
Sometimes I still do this; it’s like a fight or flight reaction. My subconscious logic, I realised recently, is that Dad’s validation of queer comedians would somehow equal validation of me, his queer daughter.
Dad doesn’t discriminate against gay comedy, but he has some things to say about it. He asks, “Do you have to be gay to be a comedian now?” and “Why do they all have to talk about how they’re gay?”
The first question is basic. Obviously you don’t need to be gay to be a comedian; it’s not a prerequisite. There may be a larger variety of queer comics to see at the festival now, but it is still dominated by a straight (white male) presence. You need only glance at the advertisements in newspapers and on trams to recognise this.
The second question is more interesting: why do gay comedians talk about how gay they are?
Addressing one’s queerness on a public platform, in this case the comic’s stage, is an act of claiming space. It’s common for a queer comedian to address their sexuality within the opening of their set. Usually, a flippant remark will be made (such as Joel Creasey’s “You’ve probably never seen me before, but I am a massive homosexual”) and, 10 years ago, this would perhaps be the extent of their queer routine. This makes for a good way to ‘out’ yourself before any potential homophobic hecklers do, stating your identity on your own terms.
Another answer to my dad’s question is, simply, openly queer material is necessary for queer audiences who just want to relate to something. It’s not necessary to relate to a joke or the person telling it to appreciate the humour, but sometimes being able to relate to a joke makes it funnier. And you can never overstate the significance of queer visibility, ever.
Asking why queer comedians have to talk about their sexuality is basically the same thing as asking “Why do gay people have to be so gay in public? I’m not homophobic, I just wish they wouldn’t rub it in my face!”
This questions suggests that perhaps for some people, like my dad, queer comedians can only be acceptable (‘good gays’) if they don’t make it obvious how queer they are. Being a ‘good gay’ means not talking about your sexuality and gender, despite the remarkable amount of times straight comedians joke about their relationships, sex and dating lives, and children. Isn’t this the same thing?
This year I’ll watch the comedy festival on TV with my dad, like I do every other year. We’ll laugh at the same jokes and we’ll laugh at different jokes. I’ll try not to feel tense when Demi Lardner or Rhys Nicholson walk onstage. I’ll try to remember that it is irrational to associate myself with comedians who my dad might not find funny more because of a generational gap than their sexuality.
The more important thing is that I feel more comfortable with my bisexuality, and the increase in visible queer comedians has contributed to that. I’m excited to watch their presence grow within the coming years.
Danielle Scrimshaw is a writer currently completing her history honours at the University of Melbourne, researching queer women’s identities in Australia from the 1840s to 1920s. She has a lot of feelings about Cold Chisel.